Interview about my map of the most common surnames

by Jakub Marian

Tip: See my list of the Most Common Mistakes in English. It will teach you how to avoid mis­takes with com­mas, pre­pos­i­tions, ir­reg­u­lar verbs, and much more.

Jaime Rubio Hancock from El País, the biggest newspaper in Spain, recently interviewed me about my map of the most common surnames in Europe. He asked a lot of interesting questions that I had not answered before, and since their article is in Spanish, I decided to publish (with his permission) the original questions and answers here:

El País: Where did you find the data? Was it difficult to gather all this info?

The data come mostly from websites of statistical offices of various countries or from news reports about such statistics (which are sometimes not publicly available). Some entries were based on public phone directories or estimates by private companies.

Gathering the data proved to be rather difficult because I often had to look things up in the respective country’s language. Even though I speak a handful of European languages, there is no way I could understand the languages of over 40 different countries, so I often had to rely on machine translation (to find statistical data; the etymologies shown in the map were obtained from various dictionaries and published articles, not by putting the names into Google Translate, of course).

El País: Did any of the surnames or origins surprise you?

Yes, I was especially surprised by the fact that Iceland still uses a patronymic system, which means that the father’s first name becomes part of the child’s last name. The last names of children of an Icelandic man named Jón would literally be “Jón’s son” and “Jón’s daughter”.

Another interesting fact is that the suffix of most Lithuanian feminine surnames depends on whether the woman got her name from her parents or through marriage, so you can tell whether a woman is a Miss or a Mrs just by looking at her name.

El País: Do some languages or countries favour certain types of surnames (based on place of origin or the father’s first name, for example)? Or are all these origins common to all languages?

That’s a very good question. Many languages favour patronymic names (names based on the father’s first name). Virtually all common surnames in Sweden, Norway, and Denmark (where North Germanic languages are spoken) are patronymic (they are of the form “Name-son”). In Spain as well, most surnames are patronymic, formed by adding the suffix -ez to a given name, e.g. Fernando – Fernández, Gonzalo – González (but the top name, García, is an exception).

Something similar happened in France, where the first name of the parent simply became the last name of the child, so there are a lot of people with surnames like Thomas, Robert, or Bernard (but Martin, shown in the map, is yet again an exception; it was not a common given name in the Middle Ages and was mostly inspired by the name of Saint Martin of Tours, who himself was named after Mars, the Roman god of war).

In Russia, the most common surnames are of the form “someone’s” (based on a name, such as “Peter’s”, or a nickname, e.g. “Wolf’s”). However, in linguistically proximate Ukraine, surnames are mostly based on the father’s profession, e.g. “smith’s”, “weaver’s”, “tailor’s”.

In Germany, most surnames are occupational, e.g. “Smith”, “Tailor”, “Fisher”and in most other countries, the top names are mixed.

El País: I’ve read the comments at your blog and I’m quite surprised at how the debate about this topic can be quite intense. Does this happen with other topics?

It happens very often. Many of the comments are helpful and add further information or point out some inaccuracies (for which I am really grateful), but some are posted by people who feel strongly about a topic they know very little about. A lot of people in the comments below the map argued about the etymology of a surname just because they felt it should mean something else than it does, without providing any sources, and it often turned out that what they claimed was just an incorrect folk etymology.

And then there are people who drag politics into everything. For example, I had a negative comment asking for the removal of the most common Estonian surname, Ivanov, from the map because most Ivanovs are ethnic Russians, and the person felt that they were not proper Estonians. How am I supposed to react to that?

I try to read every single comment very carefully because it could be pointing out a genuine error, and reading and replying to misguided comments takes a lot of time.

El País: There are quite some maps in your blog. Why do you like to use this format? Are they all focused in Europe?

My website is focused mainly on language learning, so the first few maps I made were related to languages. Then I made a few other maps about topics I was interested in, and, eventually, making maps became a hobby of mine, so that’s why I like to use this particular format.

The maps are currently all focused on Europe (which is of special interest to me, since I am European myself), but I am planning to create maps about other parts of the world in the future as well.

El País: Are you planning to do a map on given names? Why did you choose to start with surnames?

Yes, it is on my to-do list. I started with surnames simply because it was a topic that caught my attention first.

By the way, I have written several educational ebooks. If you get a copy, you can learn new things and support this website at the same time—why don’t you check them out?